Strafe it! Words as enemy aliens in war-time English.


University of OsnaBruck. Copyright under Creative Commons.

Long before 1914 and the advent of war, Samuel Johnson had pointed out that words, like citizens, exist in ‘different classes’. Some are natives, remaining in their linguistic homeland from the beginning. Others are denizens, having lived there for so long that they are virtually indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. Others, however, retain ‘the state of aliens’. If used in English, these – either in terms of form, spelling, or pronunciation – confirm allegiance to languages outside the nation state. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, still in progress during 1914-18, maintained these same divisions. Naturalisation was key.


The langscapes of war brought some interesting synergies into play in this respect. Political solidarities with allied nations could, as with France, yield a new influx of words. An ‘Entente-Gallicism’ seemed to be in operation alongside  the ‘Entente-Cordiale’,  the Daily Mail observed, drawing attention to the wide range of French derived forms which had appeared in public discourse and at the Front from the summer of 1914. As Andrew Clark verified in the Words in War-Time archive, this was a marked feature of the war, even if, as he rightly suspected, the majority of such words would fade out of use when war came to an end.

Words with traceable (or suspected) links to the enemy were rather different. German was ‘the Stigma’, as an article the Star in 1915 observed, here in documenting a campaign by the residents of German Place in London to have it renamed Tipperary Place. The Words in War-Time archive documents a variety of emergent shibboleths in this respect, as in the cultural silencing of terms such as wanderjahr:

 ‘Many servants are bent on taking what might have been called a “Wanderjahr” – the fates forbid I should use this word now’. Daily Express (March 1915).

Continue reading

Writing the refugee in WW1: language, identity, and use.

Tommies helping refugees to get into safety. Fotocollectie Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914-18. Frankrijk; Free Access – Rights Reserved. NL-HaNA_2.24.09_0_158-1211. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag

Refugee was to be another prominent word in the Words in War-Time archive. This had, in fact, been another relatively recent entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Published in 1905, the entry had tracked usage from 1685 to 1879. Yet a conspicuous absence attended refugee as used in the context of war. In the OED as it then existed, refugees sought a place of safety as a result of religious or political persecution; historical examples in the Dictionary made reference to the French Hugeunots who came to England in 1685 (after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and refugees who emerged after the ‘American revolutionary war’ and who ‘claimed British protection’. Various sub-senses documented refugee as used with reference to migrating birds, or to mean a fugitive, or to indicate someone who was simply running away from justice.

None of these senses seemed, however, to match the realities of language in the autumn of 1914. Instead, as the Words in War-Time archive demonstrates, it was war, and the wide-ranging geographical displacement it brought, which came to occupy the prime sense of refugee. Continue reading

Branded words: On not being German

Advertising, and the constructed nature of brand-names, was a topic to which Clark frequently returned in documenting ‘Words in War-Time’.  Even before war broke out, Clark had started to collect relevant examples, arguing that – for the linguistic and historian alike – these could be seen as a rich (and often neglected) resource of information about the embedding of language in culture and society. If the Oxford English Dictionary maintained a steadfast opposition to evidence of this kind (disallowing proper names as part of the legitimate territory of lexicography and the history of words), Clark again deliberately moved in a different direction. The notebooks gave him useful autonomy to explore language and meaning, and its responsiveness to on-going history, as he wished.

As previous posts have explored, the specific circumstances of war often rendered language a highly effective means by which patriotism or other issues of national allegiance could be claimed – or rejected. Consideration of form and, in particular, of word-forms which – rightly or wrongly – connoted German identity, could attract particular attention in this respect. The popular press, for example, repeatedly appropriated German patterns of spelling, placing German kultur against English culture in ways which intentionally rendered the former a by-word for savagery and barbarity. If kultur and culture derive from the same root, being, in reality, shared and cognate forms,** they could nevertheless be rendered antonyms in popular discourse — see e.g. the heading ‘More “Kultur”’, which in the Daily Express on 21 September 1914, accompanying an article (and an all too telling image) about the devastation of Rheims Cathedral.

The currency of other lexemes such as Teutonised – or non-Teutonic – both of which Clark records in his notebooks from September 1914 – easily reveals the identity politics at stake. Being Teutonised (a form still unrecorded in the OED) was, as another article in the Daily Express confirmed, seen as highly negative – suggesteing unwarranted alignment with the enemy in ways which are firmly delegitimised. Being, or being seen as, germanophile (here in another form which gained newly negative connotations — Clark records its use from September 11 1914) was, in similar ways, by no means seen as desirable.

An extensive anti-German lexis could, in such ways, became another aspect of the war of words. Notions of being pro-German, or Hun-like (both of which Clark also documents from September 1914) would all be used to mobilise highly negative feeling. The Hunite – recorded in the Daily Express on 19th September (and absent, then and now, from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  emerges, for example, as a highly effective way of labelling, and stigmatizing, the presence of unwarranted German sympathies, not least as indicated by a less than whole-hearted supported for the war effort or, still worse, by qualms about war per se. ‘Chiding the Hunites’, the heading of the article states. As the OED records, the suffix –ite was far from neutral: forms in which –ite appear, it states, ‘have a tendency to be depreciatory, being mostly given by opponents, and seldom acknowledged by those to whom they are applied’. To use language reflective of what the Express termed ‘odious Germanic taint’ could be seen as highly problematic – prompting, as we have seen, a range of acts of renaming and redefinition.

One of Clark’s particularly interesting examples in this context was the advertising campaign taken out in the autumn of 1914 by Krieger, the brand name of what was given as ‘the electric carriage syndicate’. Here, as the company realised, form and meaning could intersect in newly problematic ways. Krieger was, in some ways, ahead of its time – its electric vehicles offer early prototypes of a technology being explored and extended today. Clark noted the collocation electric carriage (also absent from the OED) as a combination of marked interest; if ‘carriages’ looked back to the past, ‘electric’ offered a new sense of modernity (as well as extending early designations of the car as ‘horseless carriage’). Nevertheless, as war began, the suspicion that, for Krieger, its name (and hence its products)—might also be seen as overly ‘Teutonised’ (and, indeed, ‘Germanophile’) was a source of self-evident concern. Krieg, as the German word for ‘war’, seemed less than ideal as a defining element in the name by which the product was popularly known, not least given the prevalence of similar Germanic forms – such as kriegspiel or kriegsmetall — in other contemporary (and highly negative) news accounts.

For Krieger, a range of advertisements therefore swiftly appeared, proclaiming British national identity and unimpeachable patriotic credentials.

‘The above company has been, from its formation in April 1903, a British Company’,

as readers were, for example, reminded. More to the point, perception of its association with German krieg is depicted as misguided in the extreme. Visual similarity was, it stressed, a false friend indeed; only in error, we are informed, could the brand names be read as krieg plus er, with its disturbing associations of militarism and aggression. Form — in both speech and writing – is strategically repositioned, while recent history clearly demanded a set of history lessons of its own. In the advertising which appears in autumn 1914, the name loses its hard Germanic /g/ and gains a small but suggestive é acute.

Etymology, in turn, is made to validate not the all too negative German krieg but instead an identity in French by which Krieger derives not form Krieg plus er, but from a ‘Monsieur Kriéger’, a Frenchman, resident in Paris, where

‘the original Kriéger Company was formed, and from whom the London Krieger company purchased its patents’.

Form was renegotiated once more – Kriéger, once French, had become British by losing its distinctive é, as well as gaining a different pronunciation. Commercial and linguistic assimilation had worked together. With the advent of war, the accent was, however, to be put on success in quite literal ways. Advertising campaigns carefully stress the allegiance which the small but significant é confirms. Krieger was carefully distanced while Kriéger could, as potential purchasers were reassured, be bought without qualms. French diacritics could get a new lease of life in English. Language, yet again, could be used with tactical intent — here, in what one might nevertheless see, as a strategic exercise in damange limitation.***


**Culture derives, as OED confirms, from Latin cultūra, and was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French after the Normal Conquest. Originally used to refer to literal cultivation of the land, German ideas of culture (signifying the ideas, customs, etc. of a society or group) became prominent in English after the eighteenth century. See culture (n.), OED Online.

*** Modern parallels can be found in the suddenly negative connotations of ‘Isis’ as a company name, as reported in the press in November 2014. This, too, can prompt issues of identity and subsequent rebranding.

Platoon: tracking lexical life beyond the Oxford English Dictionary

 ‘Whole platoons rushed to the rescue and emptied their magazines into them, and not a few were bayonetted’ ‘”Bravo !’, shouted my platoon commander as he watched the carnage through his field glasses’ Daily Express, 1914 1 Sept

Platoon was one of a number of words where, as Clark’s notebooks confirm, evidence and meaning already seemed to have moved beyond that which the Oxford English Dictionary supplied. Clark’s ‘Not in N.E.D.’ ** appears like a refrain through his early notebooks, set against words such as flag-wagging, an idiomatic locution which he found  in the Daily Express in August 1914. It meant,  Clark explained, ‘boasting of military and naval power of one’s country’, and was a word which was already seen as redolent of an excess of patriotic zeal. Terrace offered other problems. Declared obsolete in the OED, it seemed alive and well in the popular press.  Clark found it, for example,  in reading the pages of the Evening News on  8th September 1914,here in an article  describing French refugees in Britain:  ‘the refugees paces up and down, sat on the chairs and the deck seats, read French papers. The lawns were like the terrace of a fashionable French watering place in the height of the season’.  If terrace had been obsolete for the OED, it was perhaps re-introduced as a loanword, Clark hypothesised.

Platoon was similar. *‘N.E.D. says “obs”, but much in use in 1915’, Clark notes against the quotation from the Daily Express which appears at the top of this post.  OED entries typically offered a model of life-history or biography for each word. Platoon, the dictionary confirmed, had in this light begun to be used in English in the military senses in 1637, signifying A small body of foot-soldiers, detached from a larger body and operating as an organized unit’; it could also mean half a company, a squad, a tactical formation preserved in some armies for purposes of drill, etc.’.  Yet, while the life-history of platoon could, at least in other senses, be tracked in terms of its later use, its role in military diction was deemed to have come to an end in the mid-19th century. ‘it is Obsolete in the British army’, James Murray stated in his entry for the word, drawing on the apparently definitive information given by Stocqueler in his Military Encyclopaedia  of 1853. This was reproduced in the dictionary entry: ‘Platoon, a subdivision or small body of infantry. The word is obsolete, except in the term ‘manual and platoon exercise’’. Later evidence which Murray included in OED1 was, accordingly, both historical and linked to American rather than British use.

Written in 1907, platoon had  in fact formed a relatively recent entry within the still-evolving OED. Clark, just seven  years later, would, however, start  to document a very different history.  Platoon, as the evidence he assembled in his notebook lexicon proved,  had not died but instead, as the popular press attested,  it was indeed  ‘much in use’.  It was moreover used as noun and as adjective, as Clark’s evidence on platoon commander from the Daily Express in September 1914 had also indicated. Rendered alive in the evidence he had before him, yet dead in a national dictionary written on historical principles, the word, and its apparent anomalies, would clearly remain on Clark’s mind.

The OED, as in many other instances which Clark would go on to document during the war years, would in this respect by no means get the last word. One day in 1915 Clark found himself in conversation in Great Leighs with Major Joseph Caldwell, who had served with the London Scottish. Clark took the opportunity to elicit additional information on platoon  As Clark therefore records in a postscript which appears at the end of his first notebook, his quest was successful — enabling  him to fill in at least some of the gaps in the ‘biography’ of platoon. As Major Caldwell confirmed, as far as he could remember it had ‘dropped out of use about the end of Wellington’s campaigns’, but ‘reintroduced in the official orders for drill in 1914’.

In the later 1920s Clark’s material was passed to the OED. While little use was made of it as a whole, platoon was one of the criticisms the dictionary took on board as it prepared a corrected Supplement  for the first edition (which had finally been completed in 1928).  In the 1933 Supplement for the OED, the entry is revised. Platoon is no longer obsolete but, as we are now told,  it was in fact ‘recently revived in the British Army for a unit of infantry forming a fourth part of company and subdivided into four sections of about eight men each’.  Clark, Caldwell, — and the evidence of the Daily Express which prompted Clark’s observations — together with the later editors of the 1933 Supplement who read Clark’s work after his death, would in such ways all combine to produce a corrected version which remains the basis of the modern entry, and platoon’s on-going history as part of military diction. As the Supplement confirmed, Caldwell’s intuition about the change had indeed proved  correct, though the dictionary also managed to find an earlier  citation which located the shift in 1913 (1913   Army Order 323 16 Sept. §4   A company will be divided into four platoons, each commanded by a subaltern…Each platoon will be sub-divided under regulations to be issued later’). Stocqueler’s evidence has in the meantime disappeared as the entry was recently revised in full,  in June 2006, for OED Online (the on-going third edition of the OED).

Those interested in the language of the First World War –and the period in which platoon, as Clark confirms, rose to prominence in early twentieth-century use — might nevertheless find it surprising that the revised evidence in the OED moves from 1913 (and the quotation which is given above), to another  quotation from 1945

H. P. Samwell Infantry Officer with Eighth Army iv. 33   We had agreed that he should bring up Company H.Q. and the reserve platoon behind, while I led the forward platoons

The diction of the war years themselves is silenced, along with the popular sources Clark documents. Likewise, for platoon commander, it is the canonical Wilfrid Owen who is used as the basis of the OED evidence for this period

1917, W. Owen Let. 23 Nov. (1967) 509   Interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s

rather than Clark’s citation form the Daily Express some three years earlier. Clark’s evidence remains in the notebooks, along with his careful tracking of language on the move as witnessed in the reportage of the popular press.

[“platoon, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 4 August 2014].

** NED = New English Dictionary, the original title used for the OED in its 1st edition (1884-1928).


Allies and Enemies: taking sides in the language of war


Reading the Scotsman in February 1914, Clark had noted with interest the appearance of a lengthy set of articles on names and naming by Herbert Maxwell. He excised its variant components carefully, and pasted them into his early notebooks on language, providing annotations where necessary. Language, as the article had stressed, could readily reveal the patterning of power and control, as in the impact of the ‘feudal language of ownership’ following the Norman Conquest, and the legacies that English surnames continue to reveal. Names, Maxwell had stressed, eloquently conveyed their own history – whether this reflected the features of the local landscape, or the patterns of invasion and occupation that history likewise confirmed.

That contemporary history would swiftly reveal a similar play of language and power would perhaps have surprised Maxwell. Speaking the same language – or its converse – would, in these terms, be rendered a particularly effective metaphor, with some strikingly practical consequences. French, as we will see, could in these terms become a familiar – and often unglossed –component of newspaper despatches. Readers of the Daily Express would, in the early days of war, hence encounter a range of locutions unrecorded in the OED as it then existed (‘there is room enough to spare in all the cafes at this hour of the aperitif, where only a few of the old customers sit around and study the ‘temps’’, as Clark noted, pasting in his notebook an extract from an article set in the cafes of Paris in late August 1914;  similar are his notes on laissez-passer and guichet as other aspects of local colour and newly assumed fluency for readers of the English press (‘In the morning I was warned by the landlord that I would not get out of Rouen without a laissez-passer’ (5 Sept 1914, Daily Express), ‘I demanded my ticket at the guichet’ (ibid). French signals solidarity, togetherness, and alliance.

Elsewhere, language – and languages – could be used to emblematize the political divides of war in very different ways. ‘To use English words is the greatest crime’, as the Scotsman reported in an article on Germany on 7th Sept  1914, picking out specific examples of both silencing and rejection:  ‘the Hamburg people no longer play bridge, but Brücke’, it noted. Clark noted down both the word, and its significance (1/81). ‘Bridge’ was verboten. Place-names likewise attract a flurry of interest, prompting both resistance and counter-attack in linguistic terms. Here, being German-named gained newly negative connotations as the Daily Express confirmed, here in another compound which, for Clark, usefully revealed the play of words in time:

The change in the name of the capital has been received with popular enthusiasm, and other German-named towns, such as Schluesselburg, ask for the transformation of their names [Daily Express, September 3rd 1914]

Language, as Clark notes, was here used ‘to intimate [the] repudiation of German influence’. The shift of St Peterburg to Petrograd is, in this respect, extensively documented in the early weeks of war. ‘The substitution of the Slavonic “grad” for the Germanic “burg” in the termination of the “Petersburg” is an interesting and significant effect of the war’, as an article in the Scotsman declared 2 Sept 1914:  ‘The change in the name of the capital has been received with popular enthusiasm, the German terminology of the late name having become an anomaly in existing circumstances’. This was reported in the Daily Express under the heading Germanism (DE Wed 2 Sept), providing, for Clark still further evidence of the divisions – and changes – language would enact.  Even if, as the article records, ‘This is, perhaps, one of the trivialities of war’, it was nevertheless also able to be depicted as ‘significant proof of the deep hatred of Prussian militarism which extends from one end of Europe to another’. For Clark, the article gave another locution – rechristen — which also seemed to signal the changes taking place, and the strategic patterns which language could reveal.

In Berlin they have Teutonised the names of the Hotel Westminster and the Hotel Bristol. The Russians have been more magnificent. Their capital, Petersburg, has a German name. It is now patriotically re-christened Petrograd.

Petrograd became the newly accepted norm, and by September 6th, Clark is documenting its extension to adjective as well as noun. ‘’the military critics in the Petrograd press infer that the next few days will bring news of a very important character’ as the Scotsman recorded on 8 Sept 1914.

Even if not entirely convinced by their currency, or the facts of actual use, he tracked a range of other similar neologisms. ‘Brusselsburg: a silly invention to describe Brussels as having passed under German rule’, he noted, against another clipping in his first notebook, headed ‘Brusselsburg. Life under the new William the Conqueror’. The ‘suggestion of the word’, as Clark explains, drew on the analogy of Petrograd.  Such forms were evanescent, and would certainly never make their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (which maintained, in any case, a policy of avoiding proper nouns). They were, however, also profoundly evocative of the historical moment; as Clark’s notebooks confirm, history and ideology, and new acts of feudal dominance, clearly prompted coinages of this kind.

[Citations from the Clark archive, and vol.1 of ‘English Words in War-Time’ provided courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford]